Banned Books

September 22, 2004

Thoughts provoked by Banned Book Week and, in particular, the 2004 list of frequently challenged books.

4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Now, there’s a book that richly deserves to be banned, and by rights should only be read through an underground network of kids passing along used copies wrapped in brown paper. There’s something
fouled up about teachers assigning that book as a classroom text – not that it isn’t a great book, but because its paranoia about authority is so toxic and corrosive that for someone in authority to hand it to a young person sets off some very loud cognitive dissonance.

7. Harry Potter and the [X] by J.K. Rowling

I’m not too sympathetic with Christians who object to this book because it portrays witchcraft in a sympathetic light (what’s particularly sinister, supposedly, is that Rowling uses Latin incantations that may derive from the history of real witchcraft). A more interesting objection, to my mind, is that the kids reading these books are often young enough that the idea of giving them a role model who seems constitutionally incapable of following rules and obeying authority seems suspect. If you’re a Christian parent, trying to raise a child completely against the grain of the surrounding culture, a
message that disobedience actually equals initiative and independence isn’t helpful. This is especially true of the earlier books – the interesting thing about Order of the Phoenix, in my mind, was it kind of deconstructed Harry’s contrary temperament and suggested that maybe his refusal to trust adults and follow the rules was a little dysfunctional.

9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

People who like this should read Jacob Have I Loved.  There's a book to cut you to the bone with sheer beauty.

16. The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine

I’ve liked books that could be described as superficial, manipulative, and boring, so maybe I need another word to capture how I feel about R. L. Stine. Some folks think he helped a lot of kids get into
reading, but I don’t actually know anyone who ever graduated from reading his McStories to reading good suspense like Lois Duncan – let alone other worthy genres of literature. How many more times has it happened that someone who read all the Goosebumps books hit puberty, discovered girls and/or boys, started a complex emotional life and never again thought of picking up a book – because Goosebumps left the distinct impression that books were populated by cardboard people? Or wanted to pick up a book but found it tiresome and arduous to read, because Stine’s prose was so crude and simplistic?

18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Walker’s Meridian deserves to be read, and banned, as least as much as The Color Purple. A truly subversive novel.

19. Sex by Madonna

This is where the banned list gets a little silly. The interesting thing about a banned book is not that a small or great number of people found it offensive. The interesting thing is that some librarian thought the book was worthwhile for inclusion in the collection, and then had to pull it because of a negative reaction. The bizarre thing with Madonna’s Sex
is not that someone objected to a book with graphic depictions of extreme sexual behavior being in a library, but that a librarian put it there in the first place. So the real question you have to ask
when looking at the list and clucking is, what books are out there that have a lot of power and value, but will never show up on a banned-book list because NO librarian would EVER put them on the shelf to begin with? What are the worthy books that never make it through that filter?

22. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

I used to go to Redeemer Presbyterian Church, an enormous juggernaut of a church that meets in Manhattan, fueled by the extraordinary preaching ministry of one man. The intellectual atmosphere at the church is more stimulating than not, and progressive in interesting ways while being conservative in even more interesting ways. However, I once came upon a book in their book ministry – that is, it was a book that was on sale at a table set up at every coffee/social hour – that was the most backwards, pathetic tract I’d ever seen. It was arguing that Madeleine L’Engle wasn’t really a Christian and her books were pernicious and heretical in their theology. Now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that Madeleline L’Engle was too heterodox for a bunch of conservative Presbyterians – frankly, A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels struck me as pretty flaky even as sf/fantasy for young adults – but that someone found her so threatening that they had to
write a book about it is pretty sad. If the folks who mock the anti-Harry-Potter people got hold of this, I would be so embarrassed.

33. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

It has come to my attention that a number of adults who really enjoy a scary suspense novel are not aware of this book’s existence. Summer of Fear is also excellent.

48.  Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden.

Just as a point of reference, in case my cranky outlook is easily misunderstood, this is not a novel I could justify banning in any circumstances. I’ve rarely read a book that actually said so
much while still being (in the better sense of the word) inoffensive. It’s a novel that proves you don’t have to be bitter and caustic to be profound. That this book is banned is a commentary on nothing more than the distaste for homosexuality on the part of the self-appointed censors.
55. Cujo by Stephen King

Here’s another example of absurdity. I yield to no man in my esteem for Stephen King. But Cujo, as he would be the first to admit, is a cruel, harsh novel – he wrote it, if I’m not mistaken, when his life circumstances were pretty screwed up. It’s not just a horror novel: it’s a brutal counterattack against a cold and heartless and sin-stained world. I wouldn’t want anyone putting this within easy reach of kids who may only know Stephen King as a massively popular author of scary stories.

62. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I would never recommend this book for a kid who actually was struggling with the conflicts of religious identity. Blume’s approach is awfully superficial – and this from an author who was rightly praised
for not underestimating her readers’ intelligence. Its continued notoriety is probably more because of its funny scenes about impending puberty: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”

74. Jack by A.M. Homes

For those who don’t know this novel, it’s very very good – on a level with Salinger, maybe. This was probably a knee-jerk homophobic response that caused it to be banned, although the protagonist is not gay. Incidentally, Jacqueline Woodson’s From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun is also a terrific YA novel about a related subject.

83. The Dead Zone by Stephen King

Still my favorite of his.

86. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

A tender/brutal memoir about growing up in and out of gangs in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies.  Some scenes of violence, but what probably got it banned – and deservedly – are a handful of very jarring, explicit sex scenes.  Other than those scenes – which don’t give a lot of context for understanding the situations he got himself into, or a lot of insight into sexual responsibility – he writes like an angel.

92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher

I really like this book. One of its many virtues is that is portrays rage against God in the wake of tragedy.


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